Writers, producers near new contract

Time was running short before agreement reached

The Writers Guild of America reached a tentative three-year contract agreement with producers and networks Thursday night, just a day before the current covenant was due to expire.

Negotiators for the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers wrapped up their talks at about 7:15 p.m., but declined to discuss details of the pact pending its approval next week by the guild’s two governing boards in Los Angeles and New York.

After that, the document will be mailed to the guild’s approximately 12,000 members for ratification, probably later this month. By mutual consent, the terms of the current pact will remain in effect until then.

The contract is not believed to differ substantially from a document tentatively agreed to last fall, but later rejected by the membership. Failure to ratify the pact caused a major rift between the eastern guild — whose members voted it down — and the west, and forced everyone back to the table last month.

The producers stuck to the earlier deal; the writers’ representatives said they would seek some modifications.

As it stood in September, the contract called for a 3% cost-of-living increase and pension and health benefits for scribes who sell spec scripts; previously, writers only received those benefits upon being hired to rewrite a spec screenplay.

At the time, many members were disappointed that the sticky issue of whether to increase foreign-market and basic-cable residuals had been deferred for further study. The agreement reached Thursday is understood to contain the same stipulation, namely that the two sides will undertake a joint two-year probe of residuals, similar to a strategy agreed to by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists in their bargaining with producers (Daily Variety, April 6).

The residuals issue — which will remain unresolved pending results of the study — was a key factor last fall in the narrow rejection of the WGA contract, and was so contentious a matter in the SAG/AFTRA talks that it was shunted off the table to avoid precipitating a strike.

WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr. wrote a letter to members earlier this week saying the work of negotiators was “incredibly difficult, considering the unique circumstances we face in this negotiation that severely constrict the range of available bargaining options” — a reference to the precedent set by the SAG/AFTRA deal.

The apparent success of the WGA’s talks with the AMPTP has not come easily. Failure to ratify the contract in September caused bickering and name-calling between the two guilds, which are administered separately. Officials in Los Angeles said they had a legal right to negotiate with producers, regardless of whether WGAE was involved. Eventually, guild officials from New York and Los Angeles reluctantly held a series of peace meetings on the premise that negotiating strength lay in a united stance.

The guild was prepared for a walkout. It had set up a strike fund committee — as required by the guild’s constitution — with $7 million in the kitty. The guild also has a strike registration system, which it used to great effect during the 1988 writers’ strike; it serves as a repository for writers to submit work written prior to a strike.

In his letter to members, Petrie said he was required to inform members of such procedures but that he had no wish to “raise unnecessary concerns.”

“We cannot rule out the possibility of a strike,” he wrote. “Please know, however, that nothing in this letter is meant to signal that a strike is suddenly more than a possibility.”

Petrie also disclosed that the U.S. Dept. of Labor had elected not to pursue a complaint against the guild hierarchy filed by a group of WGAW members. The complaint alleged several violations of law in the guild’s election of officers and board members in September. The DOL referred the matter to the guild for an internal investigation; a special committee concluded that the allegations were unfounded.

Five of the 95 members who initially filed the complaint went back to the DOL for a resolution, and the agency conducted its own investigation. The deadline for DOL action was Monday, and none was taken. As a result, Petrie said, “we can now regard this chapter as closed.”

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